Tips for Dearing from the south

May 24, 1996

It has been interesting to read reports of reactions to South Africa's national commission on the future of higher education discussion document. I was privileged to attend the recent Salzburg seminar where international educators joined commissioners and other representatives from South Africa to consider the report.

Just as interesting has been the process by which the commission was established and has conducted its work. As Sibusiso Bengu, the minister for education, emphasised, higher education is integrally linked to the aspirations for the new South Africa and the creation of a learning nation. Its importance, not just as an end in itself, but as a contribution to the development of equality and social justice, is at the heart of the commission's work.

Lifelong learning is seen as a lifestyle, a crucial part of the democratising process. The challenges are daunting. It is not just that South Africa's higher education was a key part of apartheid but that it bears all the hallmarks of the colonial regime in which its foundations were laid. It is an explicitly elite system, designed for the few.

As with the rebuilding of the society, the values on which the commission is based are clear: equity; redress; access; and democracy. What is so impressive is how the work of the commission has sought to operate on the basis of these values. Over ten months, it received 123 written submissions, conducted public hearings and heard verbal presentations. It made several site visits throughout the country and held meetings with a variety of interest groups.

The resulting document has been widely circulated as a discussion paper, and is now the subject of extensive consultation.

The whole process is being conducted with an openness and frankness which has much to recommend itself to our own Dearing committee. The huge difficulties in the process, the report and its implementation should not be underestimated. The issues are daunting; the size of the problems, intimidating. Many people are dissatisfied with the report, and how the competing and conflicting demands will be reconciled remains to be worked out.

In particular, the key issue of redress lies at the core of the arguments. Any move towards a unified sector will need to address the massive historical inequities in funding between different kinds of institutions. This is widely recognised and understood. It is identified as a major challenge if the values and vision for higher education in South Africa are to be realised.

The task of creating and sustaining such a system are formidable. It is not just a question of how to provide opportunities for those historically denied access to, and participation in higher education. The existing sector will have to grow fourfold by the year 2003 simply to cope with an increase of 10 per cent in the participation rate of black 18 and 19-year-olds.

There is a deep suspicion of those intellectuals seen as the handmaidens of apartheid. The relationship between "experts" and democratic processes are highly contentious. The role of the state is another source of tension, with the historically repressive state apparatus having to be reconstituted to serve democratic principles.

But the ways in which the commission has conducted its work, the commitment to openness and exchange of views, the determination to redress historic inequities, and the direct linking of higher education to social justice offer salutary lessons for us as the Dearing committee begins its deliberations.

Mike Fitzgerald is vice chancellor of Thames Valley University.

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